As promised, I’ve done some digging into Abdullah Sharbatly’s complete lack of show results which would prove his achievement of the FEI Certificate of Capability – which is required for Olympic participation. I’m sure Grania Willis, the FEI’s Director of Press Relations, lets out a sigh of resignation every time a message from me pops up in her inbox, but she is the woman with access to all the people with all the answers. She also never fails to respond quickly and connect me with the person I want to bother with my sometimes (ok, often) annoying line of questioning. So Grania was the first place I went when I wanted to know how Sharbatly managed to get here from having his first CSI show result on June 29; the Olympic qualification deadline was June 17. Grania sent me to the deep dark reaches of Annex VIII of the FEI Jumping Rules, which describe qualification procedures for major Games and championships. There is a curious little item in that Annex. Rather than try to explain, I think you should read it for yourself:
In exceptional circumstances, if an NF finds it impossible for its Athletes to
qualify as above, it may request the FEI to send a foreign assessing
delegate at the expense of the NF to assess the level of performance, at a
special qualifying Competition, run in accordance with FEI protocol,
consisting of one (1) round with the dimensions as set forth on a course plan
provided by the FEI. Athletes/Horses scoring eight (8) Penalties or less in this
round will be considered to be qualified. The foreign assessing delegate,
appointed by the Jumping Committee, will advise the NF and the FEI on the
granting of Certificates of Capability. If by misfortune an Athlete/Horse
combination has more than eight (8) Penalties but shows a very good
performance otherwise over the course, the foreign assessing delegate may
let this combination repeat a similar course. But in no case can an Athlete
qualify if he has scored more than eight (8) Penalties in the second round.
Oy vey. What sore thumb sticks out the most to you? Is it:
A. the fact that an athlete with sufficient funds and insufficient results can just pay for some FEI officials to come to their farm and stage a ‘special’ qualifier?
B. the fact that the athlete gets a second shot if he or she fails to get ONLY EIGHT FAULTS the first time?
C. the wording that gives a single person, the ‘foreign assessing delegate’ sole discretion to decide on purely subjective terms whether the Athlete/Horse has shown a ‘very good performance otherwise’, meaning very good, other than the fact that they didn’t manage to leave all but two of the fences up?
D. the wording that gives the foreign assessing delegate the option to modify (make easier) the course, since that’s what ‘similar course’ implies?
I’m going to go with A, B, C, and D. Four big red sore thumbs.
I emailed Grania again and said that this new information raised a whole bunch of new questions for me, and once more she promptly delivered the goods. Here are the questions I put to her, which she then put to John Roche, the FEI’s Jumping Director:
“I would like to know when that exception was put into the rules. It has wording that really raises a lot of questions about its legitimacy, since it’s essentially saying the rider can have a second try. It places a significant burden of discretionary responsibility on the foreign assessing delegate, which is something that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere in the sport. I also want to know in whose best interest such a qualifying exception is, other than the specific, narrow interests of a very few individuals. I understand an athlete from Kazakhstan took advantage of this exception in 2008. I would like to know what other athletes have qualified through this process since it was introduced. I know this is not great timing, but since the Saudi team has won a medal, I do have readers who have expressed an interest in my getting some clarification.”
John Roche’s answers:
“The Regulations relating to obtaining Minimum Eligibility Standards have been in existence since before the Olympic Games in Barcelona, including providing an opportunity to qualify at a Special Qualifier. The same rule applies for Olympic Games, European and World Championships. A number of countries have requested such qualifiers and their requests have been facilitated. The qualifier is run under full competition conditions, and the FEI supplies a course plan on the morning of the competition. There is a horse inspection carried out by an FEI Veterinarian. An FEI Steward is appointed to ensure that the Rules and Regulations are respected, including monitoring the warm-up. Boot and Bandage control is carried out by the Steward. The FEI appoints an international judge as Assessing Delegate, whose responsibility is to ensure that the course is built to the dimensions laid down in the course plan and to judge the qualifying rounds and to report to the FEI following the qualifier.”
Grania said she hoped that this answer provided some clarification. It did. It clarified that this special qualifier must cost a dump truck load of money, what with having to pay wages and travel expenses for three FEI officials. It also clarifies that this means of qualifying has nothing to do with earning your salt as a competitor. How could you possibly equate a staged private event for one or two riders (Sharbatly and Jordan’s sole entry in the London Show Jumping, Ibrahim Hani Bisharat, went Dutch on the costs I guess) with qualifying at an actual competition?
Get this. The criteria for obtaining a certificate of capability the ‘normal’ way don’t allow any results with eight fault rounds at anything less than a five star event. Don’t tell me these riders are qualifying at their special event over a course of five star dimensions with absolutely zero creds. We’re talking about riders and horses who have not met the very easiest criteria, which is to have clear rounds in two separate Grand Prix classes at the CSI3* level. If they don’t have that, it would be a serious breach of the FEI’s horse welfare mandate to send them over a five star course.
But actually, the sorest thumb of all for me is the very high degree of subjective power that is given to the FEI assessing delegate. This is normally an objective sport. “You knocked two jumps down so therefore you don’t win the class and you don’t get to count this as an Olympic qualifier.” That’s the way it goes for most people in the sport, who kind of like going to shows and competing as a way to prepare for a gig like the Olympics. “You knocked five jumps over but you kept your heels down and smiled a lot even when your horse ran out at the third element of the combination, so let’s just take that jump out and lower these that you hit, and then you can take another run at it.” That’s the way it can go if you order up one of them special Olympic qualifiers. I can only imagine how well that FEI delegate is taken care of when he or she turns up at the farm. Would you like some caviar with your Cristal?
As far as I know, no such qualification loophole exists in any of the other Olympic disciplines. This week we have heard a lot of rah-rah horse welfare cheerleading following Tiffany Foster’s disqualification (yes, I’m going to keep working that story into my blogs from London) because Victor had a little scrape on his coronet. But we had two riders on horses who had not qualified in competition; they got here based on having no more than eight faults over a private course in someone’s back yard. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the Jordanian’s part. He’s been showing the daylights out of Vrieda O ever since he got the horse from some rider in Belgium. Have a look at the FEI database’s record of results for the horse. He didn’t do too badly at the first show, which was two months after the Belgian rider had last competed. But then Bisharat went off on his own for three months and things went sideways. His 12 outings resulted in various outcomes – 23 faults one time, a withdrawal, a retirement, and lots and lots of rails. He didn’t do too badly at a two star – his only clear round in fact – but a two star doesn’t count. And how did Bisharat fare at the Olympics? Well, he wasn’t last, but the course the first day was designed to cull the weaklings – and he was one of them. A 12 fault round that left him 67th, and thankfully for us as well as his horse, gone for the remainder of the competition.
Bisharat had no business here in London. The idea that you turn up just to get a participants’ ribbon is fine for the Jamaican bobsledders, but bobsleds are not living, breathing and potentially suffering animals. The FEI Certificate of Capability exists to ensure that an event like the Olympics is not populated by weak performers. It’s bad for the competition overall and it’s bad for the image of a sport that is already walking a fine line when it comes to the folks at PETA.
Now, the Sharbatly situation is both similar and different to Bisharat’s. In so far as Sharbatly was the weak link for his team from beginning to end, he was like Bisharat in his underachievement. But here is where he differs: he got to have a bronze medal hung around his neck two days ago because his team mates won it with their performances. I can tell you that particular young man will parade around and gloat about his medal as if he personally jumped every medal-winning round himself. Hell, he might even claim he did it on foot, without the aid of his horse. When the riders were asked at the press conference to give a brief explanation of who they were, he led off with “I am the World Vice-Champion”. Another report I heard second hand, so it’s not even close to being confirmed, is that when asked by a journalist who his hero was, he answered “myself”. And no, he wasn’t joking.
I apologize for repeating myself, because I have written about this before, but I want to remind you what Sharbatly’s record looks like. He received an FEI suspension for testosterone in his horse in 2006. He received a yellow card for ‘abuse of horse’, and I could have sworn it was within the last 12 months, but his name isn’t listed on the FEI yellow card list; it’s either more than a year old, or he’s got even more power than I thought. He received an eight month suspension for bute from the FEI that was overturned in what must be the fastest CAS has ever processed such an appeal. One reason given for the expedited treatment was that it was time sensitive with the upcoming Olympics. But at that time, Sharbatly had yet to compete his horse even once. He was hardly looking like an Olympic hopeful at that point, just a couple of weeks before the June 17th qualification deadline. CAS made its decision on June 7th, six days before his ‘special’ qualifier. Can I be blamed for suspecting all the cards are not on the table?
Of course I ought to just be happy for those fine horses and riders who won the individual medals today. I AM thrilled for Steve (who has lovely bedroom eyes, by the way) and for Gerco, whose cherubic face is so cutely framed by his ears and who surely must have the strongest lower body position ever seen. But then there was another damned bronze medal hanging around the neck of an Irishman who was stripped of his gold medal in Athens when his horse tested positive for an illegal cocktail of the controlled substance Fluphenazine – an antipsychotic it is illegal to possess – and something called zuclopenthixol.
All this blogging just reminds me once again that it’s hard to see the justice in that disqualification that I have officially named Tiffany-Gate.